It would be easy to mis-read Dr. Heiss’s interesting book as a screed against instincts. And indeed, all of the support for such a rant would appear to be here; our instincts are hardwired into us from the preceding millennia, from eras when every question we faced was quite literally a matter of life-or-death, and these instincts are still driving us today when the questions we face are different. Or, as Dr. Heiss writes early in the book “Our instincts are still operating as if we were in the Stone Age, subconsciously directing us toward possessions we don’t need and behaviours that cause us harm in a novel modern environment.”
Heiss’s book is an inquiry into just what these instincts are and how they are working against our better judgement in the context of modern life. For example, our instinct for self-deception. When we were competing against the beasts of the field for food and survival, a certain measure of self-deception was necessary – as a rational assessment of the situation would make any sensible neanderthal crawl back into their cave and die. Or, as Heiss writes:
Imagine if your ancestors were armed with complete and full self-knowledge of their relative limited abilities. Then consider their chances in the heavily loaded odds against their daily survival… When you think about it, you are a miracle. An absurdly, statistically improbable miracle that only exists because of hundreds of thousands of years during which your ancestors overestimated their skills, competencies, intelligence and beauty, allowing them to forge ahead and overcome challenges.
And yet today, when we’re not faced with fighting for our lives for survival, this instinct for self-deception isn’t working as a motivating force in the face of long odds, but as a vehicle for the justification of behaviours that are increasingly counter-productive when not actually reprehensible. As Heiss writes:
It’s a universal instinct … to engage in self-justification of behaviours without a deep, more fully aware understanding of why we are enacting them. In other words, as humans we are hardwired to lie and self-deceive, to others and to ourselves.
Or take another instinct, how our brains were wired for a world in which you had to take what you could when you could and consequences be damned for the others:
For our ancestors, taking ‘more’ for me and leaving ‘less’ for the others was critical to surviving. After all, it was a scarce and dangerous world, and if you weren’t looking out for yourself, no one else was.
But how does that instinct play in corporate environments where teamwork and collaboration are the key to success? And where, as science shows us time and again in the natural world, bio-diversity breeds stability? How can you have any kind of thriving diversity if you contextualize everyone around you as a threat to your very existence?
And on and on – actions that made sense millennia ago but which today are, at best, counter-productive and at worst, killing us with stress and making political and cultural discourse in this country impossible.
And yet, we need our instincts. For our instincts in one sense are what guide the decision making by our subconscious that is processing what Heiss calls the “400 billion bits of information every second” that would overwhelm our conscious brain into paralysis if it were ever exposed to them.
So what do we do?
Heiss suggests not so much throwing out instincts (if that were even possible) as much as sort of rewiring them a bit for the modern world. Reframing for you brain, for example, the presentation you’re about to make so that the cortisol levels in your body don’t shoot through the roof, because they’re equating this meeting with the prospect of being attacked by a saber toothed tiger. Because you know, that’s probably not going to happen during the presentation. Probably.
Which sounds daunting since we’re dealing with instincts that have been guiding us for thousands of years. But really, that’s what we do in advertising all the time. We reframe a desire, a need, a want, in a new context in order to direct people to our clients’ products. The fact that sometimes we do it for evil – e.g., recontextualizing humans’ need to be admired, loved and desired into the purchase of a car or a beer or a floor wax – does not negate the fact that it’s within our skill set. So recontextualizing “sharing” away from “existential threats” and self-deceptive rationalizations towards “underdog motivation” should be a piece of comparative cake.
This is a particularly important dilemma for advertising agencies to resolve. Because in addition to consisting of, you know, “humans” who need to recalibrate their Stone Age instincts for a modern world, agencies are literally in the instinct business. Clients are really only buying us for our instincts. And unfortunately, not the ones we think they are. For somewhere along the line agencies confused instincts with tactics. We think a client bought us because of our media mix, or because one of our tv spots made them cry or because of an analytics report. But they didn’t (whether they actually know it or not). They buy us because our instincts told us something about people, about their product, about needs and wants and desires, that everyone else had missed. Because our instinct was to think about the way people think about themselves and develop something that resonated with that.
If agencies, in addition to making those other instinctual shifts, can make that adaptation in their thinking, from the tactical to the strategic, from the “we have great instincts about how to make a great tv spot” to “we have great instincts about how to get your customers to care”, then they stand a chance at success – for themselves and their clients. If they don’t, well… For as that old creative director Charles Darwin wrote “It’s not the strongest nor the smartest of the species that survive, but those that are most adaptable.”